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Rosa Luxemburg and the Libertarian Left
Posted on Jan 14, 2011
By Scott Tucker
The emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had accepted Bismarck as a mentor in his youth. He finally broke from Bismarck’s influence, in part because of their sharpening disagreements over how to handle the SPD. Wilhelm II was a “liberal” only in recognizing that Russian absolutism would not work in Germany, and that a working compromise had to be reached with the parliamentary representatives of the working class. In 1888, Bismarck had introduced a law to have Social Democrats “denaturalized,” or stripped of citizenship, but it was voted down in the Reichstag. Bismarck, looking backward at the Paris Commune, was determined that nothing similar should ever arise in Berlin. The kaiser, however, was looking ahead to the managerial politics of big business even while claiming a divine right to rule. In this respect, Wilhelm II was practicing his own brand of realpolitik, and in 1890 Bismarck resigned under direct pressure from the kaiser. In the same year, the anti-Socialist laws were allowed to lapse, and the SPD gained nearly 20 percent of the vote in national elections. The parliamentary system remained far from democratic, however. Aristocrats and Junkers benefited from a Byzantine “three-tier” voting system in many regions, and industrial magnates had their own proxies in the Reichstag. Women had no right to vote until 1919.
In parliament there were faction fights between the interests of the industrial barons and of the aristocratic landowners. These two clans of the ruling class had, however, long practiced a united front of “Iron and Rye” against the working class. The representatives of Social Democracy, meanwhile, began showing more interest in their own petty bourgeois careers, and less interest in being a tribune of the people. As for the official revolutionary ideology of the SPD, it was still a gospel good for Sabbath days and SPD tracts, but had also become a gilded idol.
This was the political background when Luxemburg first began working with the SPD and finally moved to Berlin in March 1899: a nation only recently unified, still under the legal form of an atavistic imperial government; and the flagship party of the Socialist International, the SPD, already showing fracture lines that would later become open splits. “She was an outsider,” Arendt wrote, “not only because she was and remained a Polish Jew in a country she disliked and a party she came to despise, but also because she was a woman.” In Luxemburg’s own words, she had a temperament capable of “setting a prairie on fire,” but we must admire her composure in striding directly into the great public debates of the SPD and the International. She was resented as a young upstart by male elders with mediocre talents, whereas she commanded respect from her ablest opponents. Already in 1898, she faced the criticism of Georg von Vollmar at an SPD meeting and responded, “Vollmar has bitterly reproached me with trying to preach to older veterans when I am still a young recruit to the movement. … I know I must still earn my epaulets in the German movement; but I want to do it on the left wing, where people struggle against the enemy and not on the right wing, where people seek out compromises with the enemy.” That caused some uproar in the audience, and she continued: “But when Vollmar counters my factual presentations with the argument, ‘You greenhorn, I could be your grandfather,’ that proves to me that his logical arguments are on their last legs.” And there the transcript records laughter, presumably sympathetic. In this “dialectical” manner she was making not only the right friends on the left, but also the right enemies on the right.
A campaign of iconoclasm against the iconic figures and doctrines of the SPD could have been conducted with satirical glee, and from any number of positions from the far right to the far left. For the SPD had become a “state within a state” by building up a party ripe for absorption into bourgeois society, and by sacrificing the theory and practice of working-class struggle against the rule of capital. The SPD, whatever its faults, provided a public forum for a thorough political debate far more useful than idol smashing alone. The famous debate over revisionism within German Social Democracy is remembered as a classic polemical battle over reformist practice and revolutionary ideology. It had been inaugurated earlier between Georg von Vollmar and August Bebel; but this debate remains so fruitful for the whole international socialist movement because it was conducted on such a high level by these two later protagonists, Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg.
Both of them engaged in some ironic courtesies toward each other, but Luxemburg’s polemic against Bernstein was much more sharply antagonistic. She felt something even more important than the future of a formal political party was at stake. Luxemburg was willing (as Bernstein noted) to criticize doctrines she, too, found out of date in Marx, but she was also striving to preserve the dynamic worldview of any serious class-conscious struggle for socialism. That struggle would not occur once and for all in a single stroke of revolutionary lightning, but only through the self-enlightenment of the workers of the whole world. (After her death, Bernstein noted that he had always felt a “secret tenderness” toward Luxemburg, even though she had gone over to the camp of “illusionists,” meaning those willing to use “a policy of force.”)
As Arendt noted, “This blind alley of the German Socialist movement could be analyzed correctly from opposing points of view. …” Arendt noted that the antagonistic views were not simply theoretical or economic. The moral foundation and framework of socialism were also in question, though socialists were reluctant to moralize. This was especially true of Marxists proud of their “scientific” credentials. From 1896 to 1898, Bernstein (who had been an exile in Switzerland and Britain under the anti-Socialist laws) wrote a series of articles for the party press titled “Problems of Socialism,” and in 1899 his book “Prerequisites of Socialism” was published. In English this book is better known as “Evolutionary Socialism.” From 1898 to 1900, Luxemburg responded to Bernstein in a series of articles collected under the title “Social Reform or Revolution.” In a speech she made to the SPD Stuttgart Congress on Oct. 4, 1898, she summarized the practical import of the theoretical battle:
“And then the well-known statement [by Bernstein] in the Neue Zeit [New Age]: ‘The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement is everything!’… The conquest of political power remains the final goal and that final goal remains the soul of the struggle. The working class cannot take the decadent position of the philosophers: ‘The final goal is nothing to me, the movement is everything.’ No, on the contrary, without relating the movement to the final goal, the movement as an end in itself is nothing to me, the final goal is everything.”
No good cause is served by aggrandizing the reputation of Luxemburg, who stood both firm and fallible in life, or by the critical annihilation of Bernstein, an eminently decent man. Both Bernstein and Luxemburg paid attention to reality, and came to opposite conclusions about the relation between reforms and revolution. But Arendt was also surely correct in noting that one of Bernstein’s main convictions was “shamefully hidden in a footnote” of his book. In Bernstein’s own words, “I feel no hesitation in declaring that I consider the middle class—not excepting the German—in their bulk to be still fairly healthy, not only economically, but also morally.” Speaking of “the revolutionists from the East who led the attack on Bernstein—Plekhanov, Parvus, and Rosa Luxemburg,” Arendt wrote, “The guests from Eastern Europe were the only ones who not merely ‘believed’ in revolution as a theoretical necessity but wished to do something about it, precisely because they considered society as it was to be unbearable on moral grounds, on the grounds of justice.”
Though less famous, Luxemburg’s later criticism of the “orthodox” Marxism of Karl Kautsky, and of his “strategy of attrition,” was perhaps even more important. In this case, she was challenging a man who was regarded even by Russian revolutionaries as a venerable oracle of Marxist theory, and who had at first welcomed Luxemburg as a polemical ally against Bernstein. As Lenin and Trotsky later acknowledged, Luxemburg was the first to realize that Kautsky’s conception of Marxism was to a high degree in practical agreement with reformism, however much it was framed within a formally revolutionary theory. Already in 1906, Luxemburg defended and promoted the general strike. Kautsky argued against her views, yet they remained friends at this time. In the party press, their argument took on greater polemical heat. Kautsky also found Luxemburg’s calls for a German republic untimely. The general strike may be regarded as the more radical position, and the call for a republic as the more conservative: but that is a conventional view in retrospect. Fighting for a socialist republic by cumulative and class-conscious actions, including a general strike, is a thoroughly radical view, both then and now.
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